Shark Bait

Treasure hunter, diving extremist, and aspiring filmmaker Ron McManmon launches the ultimate party barge and introduces the gentleman's sport of shark riding

Now McManmon is explaining the next step in what he sees as a logical progression. The occasion is a production meeting aboard the Gulf Stream Falcon: "Our objective is to ride Class 3 animals, which means man-eaters. There are several varieties, but my choice would be large hammerheads or bull sharks. The smaller ones are no big deal but we don't want the smaller ones. We want two- to three-thousand-pound animals."

Most of the people in the ship's salon -- underwater cameramen, animal handlers, film production people, scriptwriters, potential investors -- have heard Ron talk about shark rodeo before. For some this is the first time they've heard the details and realized, with a start, that he's serious.

"Personally, I'd much rather ride a hammer than a bull," he continues. "The spearfishermen in South Africa call bull sharks zambezi and fear 'em even more than great whites. Plus the hammerhead is the most visually stimulating."

The visually stimulating shape of a hammerhead's head matters because when McManmon and his confreres finally climb onto the backs of the world's deadliest animals late this summer, they plan to do it in front of 47 million cable viewers on the syndicated Prime Network, with a cheering section of bikini-clad Irene Marie models, maybe a 900 number for viewers to call to vote for their favorite shark rider and win a free trip aboard the Falcon. And there'll be a docudrama crew there, with lots and lots of cameras to capture the pure and unprepackaged glory at the heart of the hype.

"This is going to entail tens of thousands of gallons of chum," McManmon explains. "After a day or two, once we get a good swarm going, then we bring in the ones we want to ride."

The ride will begin once the selected shark is brought close to the Gulf Stream Falcon by a diver in a shark cage distributing bait. Alternatively, the shark may be caught with hook and line, either from the boat or by underwater dive teams.

"You're not going to use a harness?" someone asks.
"We thought about that, no," McManmon notes in the reasoned voice of a zoning lawyer. "The first breath we take will be ambient air, but after that we'll be breathing with tanks. Each rider will have a 30- to 40-cubic-foot pony bottle on his back with a small regulator. He'll have a shark baton clipped to his side, safety divers in the water with bang sticks. When the shark takes off, he's going to hit upwards of 40 miles per hour."

McManmon explains that each shark rider will wear a bulletproof Kevlar vest, arm guards and leggings made from PVC (a synthetic pipe material), and a chain-mail shark suit: "You might get beat up and bleed a little, but you're not going to get a limb ripped off. Hopefully the shark will be in a defensive mode and just want to get away, not attack."

What if he's not? What if he doubles back and eats the rider? Tears his head off first, splattering human blood on those Irene Marie models?

"Well, obviously we're going to have liability waivers like this thick," McManmon says, holding his thumb and index finger two inches apart. "There aren't any guarantees."

Later on, in private, McManmon seems surprised when asked if he has a death wish. "I don't have a death wish," he contends. "I like to have fun. That's what this is about."

At the moment it's not entirely clear who McManmon plans to do it with. The likeliest candidates -- members of the small local cult of blue-water hunters and extreme divers -- back away quickly when put on the spot. "No. Hell no," says Aruta, McManmon's fishing buddy. "I'm not going to be a part of it. I don't aspire to that level of craziness. I've done lots of spearfishing in bloody waters with sharks all around me, but I never had a desire to climb on their backs."

"I'm not real fond of the idea," adds Mike Gandy, a long-time friend of McManmon's. "I'm not going to risk my life for his dream. He asked me the other day and I told him I wanted to see someone else do it first. I didn't give him a definite answer. But let's face it: You're playing with an animal that could do you some real damage."

Ron McManmon is on his way to the Bahamas to shoot scenes for the feature film Zeus and Roxanne. He'll be working under the wing of legendary Hollywood stuntman Mike Nomad, appearing as a body double for actor Steve Guttenberg. The assignment, as far as McManmon can tell, calls for diving to the ocean floor and rescuing a damsel in distress, in this case Kathleen Quinlan.

Until the plane departs, he sits in the Florida room of his house in the bayside neighborhood of Morningside in Northeast Miami. He's talking about resource conservation, how blue-water hunters with spear guns kill their prey with greater consciousness and greater selectivity than commercial fishermen and most recreational anglers. How hunting is interaction with an ecosystem, a merger of man and nature. How the lack of genuine interaction leads to a sterile brand of environmentalism A and a boring, spectator-flavored school of aquatic sport.

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